Don't adjust your mouse; I really am reviewing a Windows-only product. (Through Boot Camp, though, of course.) Since Macs have largely been neglected by most TV-to-PC product manufacturers, it is unfortunately not very surprising that the PCTV provides a level of DVR (digital video recorder) capabilities that is virtually impossible to find outside of Windows. Although the user interface could use some streamlining, the PCTV is an effective solution overall for bringing analog television to a Windows-based computer.
Cynical About Pinnacle?
Pinnacle's PCTV Pro is essetially exactly what it sounds like: simply connect it to a TV antenna (not included) or cable connection via a coaxial cable, then connect it to a USB 2.0-capable computer running Windows XP, and your computer is now also a TV and VCR. (S-Video and composite inputs are also available.) At just 5.8 x 5.0 x 0.8 inches and 5.1 ounces, with no power supply other than USB required, the PCTV is quite portable and unobtrusive. It captures at resolutions up to 640x480 and can store files on your hard disk in MPEG1, MPEG2, and MPEG4 formats, including the ability to create DivX-compressed files as well as files that are compatible with an iPod or Sony PSP, and it can also record directly to DVD via your computer's DVD burner. The included full-size remote runs on two AA batteries (included) and features a whopping 42 buttons, enabling you to control TV viewing, recording, and playback.
Still, when setting up the device, it won't take you long to realize that it does, unfortunately, conform to the Windows stereotype of being overcomplicated and more difficult than necessary to set up. Once you've installed Pinnacle's Media Center with TV Center, you will find that you can navigate the software's menus from the remote and enter the Settings section, but the Settings area has very limited options, and it's not immediately apparent how to set up your channel presets and other essential configuration items. It turns out that if you use your mouse instead of the remote and double-click directly into the Settings program, you will see a much more advanced view with the all options you'll need. The two versions of the Settings area act like a single program, since you can't use both simultaneously, but I wish that there were an easier and more clearly defined way to switch between the two views, especially since the current system makes it difficult even to realize that there are two different versions available.
From Couch Potato To Desk Potato
The actual TV-watching experience, however, is impressive. The picture is clear and smooth without putting much drag on your system's overall performance, even though the 640x480 view is a relatively high resolution for analog TV capture. You can toggle between windowed and full-screen mode and perform all basic TV tasks using just the remote, making it easy to use your PC exactly like a real TV (the infrared receiver is integrated into the compact PCTV unit). Optional time-shifting is also available, enabling you to pause live television if enabled.
Still, the scheduled recording system leaves room for improvement, since it (arguably) doesn't actually have one. The TV Center software integrates with www.TitanTV.com, enabling you to view TV schedules, select programs for recording, and then import your choices into the software. Although this is quite convenient under normal circumstances, it could be a big problem if the site goes down (or stops offering free accounts), or if you temporarily or permanently don't have access to the Internet. According to the documentation, if you don't have access to a compatible online program guide service, then there is literally no other way to schedule recordings.
MediaCenter is a powerful tool for organizing and navigating your recorded programs and other multimedia files. Although it is well designed, the fact is that many users already have a media program they are happy with, and I wish Pinnacle had put some of this effort into the scheduled recording system instead.
Appropriate For All Audiences?
The PCTV is a great choice for users whose main goal is to watch live TV on their computers, especially if they don't own a standard television or live in a dorm room or other location with limited space. The picture quality and remote control make it easy and fun to use. However, if you are looking for a product to record and digitize television while you're away, I would stick with one of the devices from Neuros. We now return to your regularly scheduled operating system.